Would Justin Welby be embarrassed to own shares in my bank?

The financial sector as a whole isn't the most salubrious industry to be in.

Last month, I took out a loan that had an effective APR of 243,333 per cent. But I didn't go to a payday lender to do it. Although the worst of them do offer loans with interest rates in the hundred thousands, a more typical cost of a payday loan is something like Wonga, which cites a representative APR of 5,853 per cent on its website.

No, instead, I took out an authorised overdraft at my bank. I didn't mean to, you understand; a Kickstarter project I'd backed finished, and charged me about £15. The email was caught by a spam filter, and I'd forgotten it was coming, so my mental accounting was thrown out of whack. By the time I found out, I'd been overdrawn by 17p for two days. For that privilege, my bank charged me the princely sum of £2.

Just for comparison, Wonga themselves, the arch-villain of the day, would have charged me a third of a penny, if they did loans that small, though their handling fee would have been much larger.

In my defence, I'm not an entirely ignorant consumer. The bank account I have does have punitively high interest rates if you go slightly overdrawn, but at the same time, it pays me money for being in credit (something you won't find all that frequently these days). When I'm not an idiot, the two balance out to leave me slightly better off.

But it does leave me wondering at how we pick which companies are evil. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, today says he is "embarrassed" to discover that the Church has a financial stake in Wonga. On a scale of one to ten, his embarrassment ranks "about eight", apparently. But where would an investment in my bank rank? Or is a bank a respectable institution, above criticism, even when the numbers involved tell a different story?

Part of the answer is that the numbers involved don't, in fact, tell the whole story. Quoting the interest rate for my bank is misleading: a better way of phrasing it is to say "I am charged £1 for every day I have an authorised overdraft between £0 and £500". The only reason why my effective APR was so high is because the amount I "borrowed" was so low. But for payday lenders, there's also other ways to phrase it which are less misleading. Wonga, for instance, charges interest of one per cent for every day the loan is taken out, plus a flat handling fee.

But there's also a question of business practices. It's fair to say that advising students to take out a payday loan instead of a student loan, for instance, is not particularly ethical. But then, neither is systematically selling insurance to people who don't need it and will never be able to claim on it, or lying about how much lending costs you in order to boost your profits. It's the financial sector as a whole which could do with a healthy dose of ethics, it seems.

A sign outside a 'Speedy Cash' cash loans shop on Brixton High Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.